Is it chili? Or chilly? Both apply at inaugural Gonzales VFW cookoff

Sonya T. Gordon

There’s nothing like a big pot of spicy, piping hot chili to warm you up on a cold day. Folks visiting the Gonzales VFW Post 3693 Feb. 5 had several opportunities to warm up at the first-ever Gonzales VFW Post 3693’s Chili Cookoff. The steam from 14 cooking pots striped the blue sky as competitors continuously stirred their concoctions with large metal paddles.

Marc Holder, a retired contract firefighter, donned a purple-and-gold LSU fire helmet, which joined an antique red fire helmets to win the family team the Best Decorated Booth Award.

VFW Commander Jared Nolen said it was an idea for a fundraiser that he and a committee created, and, judging by the turnout, it was a successful one. The event raked in about $2,500 for the Post’s community programs, most of which are for education and scholarships.

Sgt. First Class (Ret.) Nolen, who has been commander at the VFW post since July 2021, also had his wife, Antoinette Nolen, and two daughters, Leah in college and freshman Mallory at St. Amant High School, there. They created team Chili-Licious that competed and joined in the fun, then the daughters with the children’s face painting inside. 

The chili-cooking Holder family:  Brother Owen, mom Shannon, Marc and son Aden.

There were seats and tables for chili chugging in the building with free entertainment by local guitarist and singer Dustin Guedry.  He helped make the chili go down with renderings of country, ‘90s and rock music. 

Nolen, who is a veteran of the Marine Corps (1993-1999) and U.S. Army National Guard (part time beginning in 2000 then active duty 2005-2010, Afghanistan), said the post does about four fundraisers a year for community programs.  He served in two combat tours and in tours involving humanitarian efforts.  The fundraiser  helps pay for renting the building.  But mostly it helps fund scholarships for students in grades kindergarten through 12th grade in Ascension Parish, the veteran care program for those in need of assistance and general community service work, too. 

“For us to do these things, it takes money,” Nolen said.  “We wanted to do something different that we don’t see a lot, and everyone does jambalaya here.  So, under my wing, we began planning the chili cookoff.

“We were delighted with the 14 teams we had.  And we were able to raise plenty of money through sponsorships and ticket sales at the gate.” 

Attendees were charged $10 for a wristband and were able to then visit any booth and eat as much chili as they wanted to taste.  The club sold cold drinks, too.  One sponsor, Texas Roadhouse, gave out pre-packed peanuts and gift cards in the building, and the company also handed out gift baskets to the cookoff winners.

Competitors were placed under three category awards:  Judges’ Choice (overall win), Best Decorated Booth and People’s Choice.  Four judges made the determination on the first two category winners.  Those judges included Texas Roadhouse’s Tyler Harness, Chief of the Seventh District Gonzales Fire Department Ricky Moran Jr., Methanex of Geismar’s Plant Manager Rawle Ramlochan and Post VFW Judge Advocate Chris Clement.  Each category winner was given an attractive wood cutting board with the cookoff logo created by Yellowbarn Woodcrafting.

Chili-Licious was very close to becoming a People’s Choice winner, but Yellowstone beat them out.

“The entire event was great,” Nolen said.  “It was more fun than we anticipated, and everyone had a great time.  It was such a greater success than we anticipated, and we can’t wait for the second one”

The Best Decorated Booth Award went to team Holdin’ Smoke, which consisted of the Holder family of Prairieville.  Manning the cooking paddle was 17-year-old son Aden.  He had help from mom Shannon, brother Owen and team leader and dad Marc Holder.  Holder is a retired contract firefighter, so he had decorated the booth based on his work and the team’s name – with an LSU gold-and-purple and antique red metal firefighter helmets. 

“We are always on the lookout for ways to support our veterans.  They are the reason we came out and do this. This is a good family event to be a part of because these are good people, a good competition and good fun for a great cause.  What makes it even better is that it’s a family-oriented event.  We didn’t go out there to win.  We went out there to support our veterans and spend time as a family, meet new people and see some old friends.  Winning did feel good though.”

Team Natty Daddy’s (left to right), brothers Eric and Chet Billingsley and father Pat Bllingsley show off their Gonzales VFW Post 3693 Chili Cookoff award.

Team Natty Daddy’s walked away with the big win – Judges’ Choice Champion – at the cookoff.  Brothers Eric and Chet Billingsley said the name of the team has to do with an advertising campaign for Natural Light beer and a character called Natty Daddy.  The company already had shirts related to the campaign for sale, so the team wore those.  Empty cans were cut and strung with lights to decorate the cooking tent booth.  And the recipe might have include a little of the brew, too. 

“It was part of the recipe,” Eric said. 

Team members included brothers Eric and Chet Billingsley and friend and team captain Michael Edwards.  The team also was a finalist for the People’s Choice Award.

“It was a good time.  We had a good time.  The beer was called for in the recipe, and we included pork and steak cubed and ground beef, onions, bell peppers a Louisiana hot sauce,” Eric said.  “We had trouble coming up with a name, and my brother drinks Natural Light beer, the ad campaign had this character, and the shirts were already being sold online – everything just fell together for a theme.  It was unreal.

“We all have kids and get together to cook at home when the weather is right.  It’s almost like we’d already been practicing for this.”